Sir James Blake (Herbert Rawlinson), a retired Scotland Yard inspector and brilliant criminologist, has collaborated with his niece Hope (Joan Barclay) and American inventor Jerry Sheehan (Ralph Byrd) in developing a death ray that will make all other weaponry obsolete. Blake plans to hand the ray over to the League of Nations, which will use it to prevent future world wars–a plan that displeases international munitions magnate Count Basil Segaloff (William Farrell), who hires a mysterious master criminal called the Scorpion to steal the ray for him. It’s up to Blake to fight off the Scorpion’s gang in London, Paris, and at his own home Mallow Hall–with the assistance of Jerry, Hope, Hope’s little brother Bobby (Dickie Jones), the helpful Dr. Marshall (Lloyd Hughes), and Inspector Henderson of Scotland Yard (Sam Flint).
From 1935 to 1939, producer Sam Katzman was the boss of a shoestring studio called Victory, which turned out B-westerns, B-mysteries, and a pair of serials–Shadow of Chinatown and Blake of Scotland Yard. Blake, like many of the serials Katzman later produced for Columbia Pictures, is slow-moving and overlong, while its threadbare production values make his Columbia outings seem lavish by comparison. However, while Blake is definitely a terrible serial, it’s also a highly idiosyncratic one, and its oddities make it colorful enough to be occasionally interesting–unlike some of Katzman’s equally tedious and far more bland Columbia serials.
Blake’s screenplay (by William Buchanan and Basil Dickey) manages to capture a little of the flavor of the British “thriller” novels so popular in both England and America during the 1910s and 1920s; its Scotland Yard hero, manor house, secret passageways, criminal dens in Limehouse, journeys to Paris, suspicious servants, sinister foreigners, and mysterious master criminal all evoke the books of Edgar Wallace and his imitators–and the many silent-era serial adaptations and pastiches of those books. Not coincidentally, one of Blake’s writers (Dickey) had worked on many of said adaptations and pastiches, as had Blake’s director Robert Hill (who, under the pseudonym of “Rock Hawkey” receives an “original story” credit here–perhaps as a nod to his work on a silent serial also called Blake of Scotland Yard, which he had both co-written and directed).
Of course, Blake’s production limitations keep Hill and Dickey from making it a successful evocation of the English thriller; the serial’s almost complete lack of British or Continental players handicaps the endeavor from the start, and the serial’s minuscule budget kills most remaining atmosphere. London is unconvincingly represented by a couple of stock shots, a tiny backlot dock, some mildly foggy alleys, and sparsely-furnished interior sets, while Paris consists of one narrow street and an uncarpeted cellar café. Supposed city rooftops look fake due to the total lack of lights in the background (a simple process-screen shot of an urban sky would have worked wonders here), while the interior rooms of Blake’s mansion sport bare and dingy stone walls devoid of wallpaper, paneling, or tapestry. The mansion’s exterior (undoubtedly an actual house) and its long stairs are the serial’s one impressive set–with the partial exception of the secret passages beneath the mansion; their winding metal staircase and vaulted roofs look good, and, unlike the serial’s other locales, don’t suffer from the generally barren look of the production; it seems appropriate enough for disused tunnels to look dingy.
Above, top left: The “Duchess” (Lucille Lund) and a henchman pull up at a Limehouse “dock.” Top right: The villainous butler Daggett in one of the secret passages. Bottom left: Two dignitaries climb the stairs outside Mallow Hall. Bottom right: A meeting in the less impressive interior of Mallow Hall.
The meager budget makes itself very evident in additional areas; flubbed lines are left in, as are botched shots (notice how the camera focuses on Ralph Byrd and a slab of blank wall—instead of the thug who’s talking to Byrd–in one scene). The fight scenes were obviously shot with the bare minimum of takes; the combatants swing their arms frenetically, rarely land punches, and often look as if they’re desperately trying to avoid injuring themselves (stuntman George DeNormand, who plays a heavy, does double the heroes in some scenes, but the actors often appear to be performing their own stunts). Aside from a couple of car chases, these clumsy (but very plentiful) fights constitute the serial’s only action scenes. Some of them, sloppy as they are, are rather entertaining due to their wild energy–especially the fight on the second-story verandah of Mallow Hall in Chapter One (which features a nice leap by DeNormand from the railing to the ground), the “battle royal” in the café in Chapter Ten (which has Ralph Byrd and Joan Barclay hurling huge Frisbee-like trays at the villains), and the boarding-house fight in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen.
Above left: Herman Brix and Sam Flint are about to topple off a roof during the fight atop the boarding house. Above right: Herbert Rawlinson fights and (improbably) bests a huge half-wit in the hall of the boarding house.
However, even had Katzman provided better sets and allowed Hill to polish up the camera work, Blake’s script would have remained a fiasco. Its “plot” consists of nothing more than a protracted tug-of-war over the death ray and the radium tube that powers it, both of which change hands at a tiresomely repetitive rate. Many higher-budgeted serials featured similar tussles over gadgets, but managed to enliven said tussles by giving the coveted gizmo a part to play in the plot; unfortunately, the death ray spends almost all of its screen time packed up in an oversize suitcase and could just as easily be a treasure chest for all the use the characters make of it. We only witness its supposed power in three scenes–a televised demonstration in Chapter One, the heroine’s use of it to stall the villains’ car in the same episode, and the Scorpion’s attempt to blast the heroes with it in Chapter Thirteen (he merely succeeds in blowing a hole in the wall and shaking some ceiling plaster down, which hardly makes the weapon seem very formidable).
Like many “independent” serial productions, Blake was deliberately given as hazy and simple a plot as possible, so it could be easily edited into a coherent seventy-minute feature and given a double release (thus ensuring a double profit for Katzman). As a result of this strategy, Blake the serial is crammed full of pointless and poorly edited “padding” sequences, which are shot by director Hill in long and static takes. The heroes and villains spend interminable amounts of time shadowing each other or sneaking slowly through the secret passages, while supposedly suspenseful scenes like Dickie Jones’ attempt to prevent an explosion beneath Mallow Hall or Ralph Byrd, Joan Barclay, and Sam Flint’s slow encirclement by Parisian thugs in the café are drawn out for so long that they lose most of their punch. The lengthy “Apache dancing” scenes in the same café provide further padding–of a decidedly exploitive and tasteless nature, at that.
The serial’s chapter endings are respectable enough, several of them consisting of surprises rather than perils (like the face-to-face meeting of two Scorpions at the end of Chapter Seven or the Scorpion’s unmasking at the end of Chapter Fourteen). Ralph Byrd’s plunge down a sewer at the end of Chapter Two is pretty good, as are Joan Barclay’s apparent knifing at the end of the next episode and Herbert Rawlinson’s fall through a skylight in Chapter Nine. The Scorpion’s above-mentioned attempt to blast the protagonists with the death ray in Chapter Thirteen is also an enjoyable cliffhanger–although mainly because of the unabashedly melodramatic dialogue that accompanies it (Scorpion: “Your own instrument shall destroy all of you!” Blake: “You couldn’t!” Scorpion: “Ha-heh-heh-ha-ha-heh!”)
Most of the leading cast members deliver their frequently laughable lines with commendable sincerity. Ralph Byrd, despite his top billing, plays a decidedly secondary role as Jerry Sheehan; he does plenty of fighting and confronts the heavies with his usual earnestness, but never gets to authoritatively take charge of the action as in the Dick Tracy serials; instead of eagerly devising strategies between adventures, he merely comments on Herbert Rawlinson’s plans, flirts with the heroine, jokes with her kid brother, or bemusedly performs laboratory work. His best moment–albeit an extremely uncharacteristic one–comes when he and the heroine pose as drunken tourists in the Paris café; his raucously obnoxious antics are both funny and startling to any fan of his other serial work.
Former silent-serial hero Herbert Rawlinson is the serial’s real star, and delivers by far the best performance in the chapterplay. He handles his lines with suave dignity and cheerfully offhand confidence, and–unlike many silent-film players–is never over-theatrical in either vocal or facial acting. He’s entertainingly quirky when Blake is investigating in his multiple Holmes-like disguises, but doesn’t lapse into mere hamminess even in these scenes. His polished British accent (which becomes a Cockney or rural-English one in the disguise scenes) also gives him an authenticity that most of his co-stars lack; all in all, his characterization is the serial’s greatest asset, and was deserving of a far better vehicle.
Joan Barclay makes an extremely appealing heroine, thanks to a graceful and quietly charming manner, one of the most beautiful pairs of eyes to be found in any chapterplay, and an equally lovely face and figure. Like Rawlinson and Byrd, she avoids overacting, reacting to dangers with alarm but never with hysterical terror (she almost matches Byrd’s levels of scenery-chewing in the phony-drunk scene, however). Dickie Jones is far more exuberant as her young brother; his British accent is ridiculously fake-sounding (and is thankfully forgotten by the ten-year-old actor for entire scenes at a time) but his boundless enthusiasm makes his performance hard to dislike; his attempts to rattle off English slang (“I say, this isn’t cricket”) are more endearingly silly than annoying.
Speaking of silliness, the Scorpion is one of the serial genre’s most risible masked villains. While his smoothly sinister voice is very effective and his black cloak is a perfectly acceptable costume, he ruins everything by wearing a ridiculous-looking lobster claw on his right hand, continually holding his arm across his (already masked!) face like Ed Wood’s chiropractor in Plan 9 From Outer Space, and continually walking around while bent over double (which makes him look like a hunchbacked Groucho Marx). Whenever he staggers into a room, one expects both the heroes and his own henchmen to start laughing instead of reacting with fear. The “mystery” surrounding his identity is also pretty obvious, even more so than in Mascot’s serials.
The Scorpion’s gang is definitely more formidable than he is; Bob Terry is very tough and capable-seeming as the leading henchman, while Dick Curtis and usual hero Herman Brix provide him with formidable backup—although Brix, who’s given a moustache, eyepatch, and scar in an apparent attempt to make him look more villainous, seems decidedly uncomfortable throughout the serial. Theodore Lorch, with his unctuous manner and gleefully hammy delivery, is fun as Blake’s crooked butler Daggett, who quickly becomes a member of the henchman pack; George DeNormand is much more subdued as another recurring thug. Lucille Lund, the heroine of the Universal serial Pirate Treasure, does a very good job as the shrewd and cynical female gang member, “the Duchess,” and exits the serial far too soon.
Sam Flint gets one of his biggest serial roles as Inspector Henderson, not only assisting Blake’s investigations with his usual friendly dignity but also participating in numerous fight scenes; although it’s very odd to see the white-haired Flint (not to mention the equally elderly Rawlinson) whaling the tar out of husky heavies like Brix or Curtis, it’s also pleasant to see him get such an active part. Lloyd Hughes, a leading man in some major features during the silent era, delivers a very low-key performance as Dr. Marshall, affably but calmly congratulating Blake and his friends on their successful escapes and only rarely joining in their adventures (despite his high billing).
Former English music-hall performer Jimmy Aubrey goes outrageously and completely over the top” as “the hag,” a seedy old “woman” who serves as a messenger for the Scorpion’s gang–leering, slobbering, and cackling with complete abandon in both dialogue and non-dialogue scenes. Aubrey also hams it up in a second role as Baron Polinka, a shady Continental dignitary with his own plans for the death ray; as the Baron, he overlays his noticeable Cockney accent with a cartoonishly broad “foreign” accent that’s more comical than convincing. William Farrell also overdoes his accent a little, but is much more slick and aristocratic–and quite effective overall–in his turn as the wily Count Basil Segeloff.
Shifty and smug-looking Frank Wayne plays Blake’s footman Charles–who, like Baron Polinka, serves as a Scorpion suspect. Nick Stuart is swaggeringly nasty as the French dancer/thug Julot, who makes a completely unexplained return from the dead after being shot in an early chapter. He further jars the viewer by failing to affect even a Pepe-Le-Pew-level accent; the Gallicisms that pepper his dialogue sound decidedly strange when uttered in his emphatically American voice. Gail Newbury plays his dancing partner and reluctant accomplice Mimi, who’s similarly accent-free. John Elliott takes a double role, popping up as a League of Nations delegate in the first chapter and playing a larger part later on as a crooked boarding-house proprietor.
An unidentified actor appears as the boarding-house proprietor’s gigantic half-wit son, a muscular menace who gasps and growls in rather unnerving fashion and makes a frightening attack on Blake to end Chapter Twelve (I think this unidentified player could be Jerry Frank, but his continual facial distortions make it hard to tell). John Harron and Henry Hall play Scotland Yard men; the latter might provide the Scorpion’s voice as well. The villain is definitely not dubbed by the actor who’s eventually unmasked as the culprit, and Hall’s euphonious quasi-British voice certainly sounds similar to the Scorpion’s; considering the other players who take double parts in the serial, it’s hard to imagine Katzman hiring an additional actor solely for voice-over duty, an expense he usually avoided even in his slightly higher-budgeted Columbia serials.
Blake of Scotland Yard is an inept and amateurish ruin of a serial, but its vivid performances (both the hammy and the restrained) and the novel thriller ambience buried beneath the rubble of Katzman’s cheapness make it a ruin with enough interesting artifacts to repay the investigation of committed serial historians—the only class of chapterplay fans to whom I can in good conscience recommend it.